November 9, 2022

Cartoon Saloon Presents an Uneven Coming-of-Age Tale with “My Father’s Dragon” (Review)

It’s much easier for animation studios to establish themselves with a motif or style of film than it is for live-action production companies; for example, you can expect certain things from a Pixar film, and movies produced by Illumination are virtually guaranteed to have a certain vibe to them.

One of the world's most notable animation studios (which has kept its stellar releases few and far between) is Cartoon Saloon, known for underground children’s hits The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, The Breadwinner and Wolfwalkers. They’re now continuing their evolving partnership with the world’s top streamers with a co-production with Netflix Animation, My Father’s Dragon.

Based on the 1948 children’s book that was read to me innumerably as a child,
My Father’s Dragon is a quaint tale about displacement of a varying sort and an unconventional (but inevitable) friendship born out of mutual desire and necessity. Our protagonist is the peculiarly-named Elmer Elevator, voiced by Room’s breakout star Jacob Tremblay, who moves with his mother to the strange and scary metropolis that Nevergreen City. It proves to be an overwhelming new reality, and Elmer runs away, eventually coming upon Soda the talking whale (voiced by Arrested Development’s Judy Greer). Soda takes Elmer to Wild Island, where he meets a young, personified dragon named Boris (Stranger Things’ Gaten Matarazzo) who is under tremendous pressure to rescue Wild Island and its diverse inhabitants from an oceanic demise.

Boris’s goal is to become an “After Dragon” (which is the traditional depiction of the scary dragons of yore), but he needs to fulfill his mission and save Wild Island before that can happen. He and Elmer set off on an adventure across the island, hoping to each find what they’re looking for, all while being pursued by a patriarchal monkey (John Wick’s Ian McShane) who has a very specific idea of how the dragon should be used.

My Father’s Dragon on the basis of its target demographic seems unfair, but it’s hard not to notice how very standard the film is. It’s a story about expectation, and what to do when your life doesn’t turn out the way you want — a brutal lesson to learn at a young age, but I have a feeling the nuances will go over the heads of any small kids watching. The fact that it’s even included is a good sign, though; even if the subtleties are lost, the fact that many animated movies of the modern age are willing to dive into such complex subjects is a good sign.

That isn’t to say that this film reinvents the good ol’ animated film formula, though; far from it. It’s a tried and true method and it’s repeated for a reason, but that doesn’t make it any more fascinating or unique. My Father’s Dragon is chaotic and sometimes disorienting, muddling that message I praised so much in the previous paragraph by trying to go in a variety of confusing directions. It ties everything up by the end, but the road to get there is more unfocused than not.

My Father’s Dragon, like many other Cartoon Saloon projects, dips into folklore while maintaining a singular identity bolstered by its stunning, unique animation. My memories of the original book are hazy, so I can’t necessarily speak to how well it’s adapted, but in the end I don’t think it matters. This is a timeless story that can appeal to those of any age, and I’m glad that this adaptation exists to introduce it in a new medium for a new generation.

My Father’s Dragon premieres on Netflix this Friday, November 11.

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